All institutions and organisations which sincerely claim to uphold fundamental rights and democratic values, must stand behind Ukraine without reservations, hesitations or doubts. Countries must lead the way, but all actors in the global society should play their part. This applies to the sports community and to the Olympic Movement, the role of which is fundamental and whose decisions have a huge resonance and deep global impact.
For the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media, the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games in the current context is unthinkable: this participation would certainly be used as a tool of propaganda, and would de facto prevent other athletes, not least Ukrainian athletes, from participating. The endeavour undertaken by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to establish a set of acceptable criteria allowing for the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes as neutral, individual competitors cannot provide the necessary guarantees and will not constitute a response worthy of the values of human dignity and peace enshrined by the Olympic Charter.
Above all, the arguments for permitting participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes on the grounds of neutrality, independence of the sports movement, and non-discrimination, do not carry sufficient weight faced with the imperative of condemnation and repudiation of the atrocities being committed, and of demonstrating the international community’s complete and unwavering support for Ukraine as the onslaught continues.
Therefore, national IOC representatives and national and international sports federations should express their opposition to the IOC’s proposal to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate in the Paris Olympic and Paralympic games. The IOC should maintain the position expressed in 2022 and prohibit the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the Olympic and Paralympic Games and in all other major sporting events, for as long as the war of aggression continues.
1. Athletes with a Russian or a Belarusian passport must compete only as Individual Neutral Athletes.
2. Teams of athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport cannot be considered.
3. Athletes who actively support the war cannot compete. Support personnel who actively support the war cannot be entered.
4. Athletes who are contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military or national security agencies cannot compete. Support personnel who are contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military or national security agencies cannot be entered.
5. Any such Individual Neutral Athlete, like all the other participating athletes, must meet all anti-doping requirements applicable to them, and particularly those set out in the anti-doping rules of the IFs.
6. The sanctions against those responsible for the war, the Russian and Belarusian states and governments, must remain in place:a No international sports events organised or supported by an IF or a national olympic committee in Russia or Belarus.b No flag, anthem, colours or any other identifications whatsoever of these countries displayed at any sports event or meeting, including the entire venue.c No Russian and Belarusian government or state official can be invited to or accredited for any international sports event or meeting.Note
On 14 September 2022, the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance addressed a letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) (AL OTH 90/2022) to express their concerns regarding the recommendation of the IOC Executive Board, on 28 February 2022, to exclude all Russian and Belarusian athletes from sports events.
This recommendation followed a statement made by the Executive Board on 25 February 2022, the day after the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation and the breach of the Olympic Truce, recommending to all International Sports Federations
On 28 February 2022, the IOC recommended that International Sports Federations and sports event organisers
In their letter to the IOC on 14 September 2022, the two Special Rapporteurs noted that some of the decisions taken by the Executive Board – such as the relocation or cancellation of events planned in the Russian Federation and Belarus or the recommendation not to display the Russian or Belarusian national flags and not to play the Russian or Belarusian anthems in international sports events – could be regarded as legitimate, as they directly target the States that are, directly or indirectly, involved in the invasion of Ukraine. However, the recommendation to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials from international competitions based solely on their nationality posed serious concerns in relation to the principle of non-discrimination and the right to take part in cultural life.
In February 2023, the IOC responded to the concerns of the Special Rapporteurs, explaining the dilemma the IOC had faced – striving to protect the mission of the Olympic Movement as a unifying force but seeing no other solution than excluding Russian and Belarusian athletes and expressing its willingness to explore ways to overcome it.
The IOC is a not-for-profit independent international organisation. As the leader of the Olympic Movement, the IOC acts as a catalyst for collaboration between all Olympic stakeholders, including the athletes, the National Olympic Committees, the International Federations, Organising Committees for the Olympic Games, the Worldwide Olympic Partners and Olympic broadcast partners. It also collaborates with public and private authorities including the United Nations and other international organisations.
In September 2022, the IOC affirmed in its Strategic Framework on Human Rights its commitment to respecting human rights within its remit in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2012). To meet these expectations in practice, the IOC committed to continue to carry out human rights due diligence: an ongoing risk management process to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for any adverse human rights impacts across its relevant activities. The prohibition of direct discrimination is long considered such an important principle of international law that it applies horizontally, to all entities, public and private.
The concern of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights regarding the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes from sports events is part of her wider concern of on-going unnecessary exclusions of Russian and Belarusian people from participating in cultural life. Artists too have been excluded from cultural events, festivals and other platforms based on their nationality and their artistic freedom tightened.
Sports are one of the many cultural practices through which people develop and express themselves, learn from others and belong to a community. The right to participate in cultural life, which is protected under international law as well as many constitutions across the world, includes the right to participate in sports. This has been affirmed, among other, by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights and previous mandate holders.
In the letter addressed to the IOC, the experts stress that, in accordance with international human rights law, everyone has the right to take part in cultural life. Th is right is enshrined in article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and article 27, paragraph 1, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. References to cultural rights are also included in a wide number of human rights instruments.Note
In General Comment No. 21 (2009), the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights observes that “culture is a broad, inclusive concept encompassing all manifestations of human existence” (para. 11) including, inter alia, “sport and games” (para.13). The Committee also observes that the right to participate or take part in cultural life includes three interrelated main components: (a) participation in, (b) access to, and (c) contribution to cultural life. International human rights law prohibits any discrimination in the exercise of cultural rights.
The Olympic Charter expressly recognises, in its Fundamental principle 4, that “the practice of sport is a human right” and provides that every individual “must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind”.
Non-discrimination constitutes a basic and general principle relating to the protection of human rights. It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and virtually all core human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 2, paragraph 1) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (article 2, paragraph 2).
Human rights must be exercised without discrimination of any kind.
“Discrimination” constitutes any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference or other differential treatment that is directly, or indirectly based on prohibited grounds of discrimination which has the intention or effect of nullifying or impairing the equal recognition, enjoyment or exercise of human rights.
Differential treatment based on prohibited grounds will be considered as discriminatory unless the justification for differentiation is reasonable and objective. This will include an assessment as to whether the aim and effects of the measures or omissions are legitimate, compatible with human rights standards and solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society. In addition, there must be a clear and reasonable relationship of proportionality between the aim sought to be realised and the measures or omissions and their effects.
International law authorizes limitations or restrictions to most human rights but under specific conditions.
Limitations to the right to participate in cultural life, including sports, must be determined by law, pursue a legitimate aim, be compatible with the nature of the right and be strictly necessary for the promotion of general welfare in a democratic society. Any limitations must therefore be proportionate, meaning that the least restrictive measures must be taken when several types of limitations may be imposed.
When restrictions are coupled with a breach of the non-discrimination principle, meaning they are applied to some people only, there is a strong presumption of incompatibility with international law and the test must be more stringent.
A blanket ban based solely on nationality is the most restrictive measure, not the least restrictive measure, as required by international human rights law. It is disproportionate to the aim that it seeks to achieve. For this reason, it is contrary to international human rights law, both as restriction to cultural rights and even more so as a measure that creates direct discrimination.
The Special Rapporteur does not exclude the possibility of a series of escalating measures on a case-to-case basis and if necessary, depending on how the situation unfolds. However, less restrictive measures, such as the inclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes, or at least some of these athletes, under a neutral banner must be adopted first. Notably it is important that exclusions based on individual conduct, whatever the nationality, are favoured rather than collective prohibitions, where the threshold of necessity is high. Also, any measure must have a clear effect on the specific aim that it purports to fulfil, such as the maintenance of peace.
Ensuring that sports events do not become platforms for war propaganda is a legitimate concern. International human rights standards provide specific and clear guidance.
Athletes engaging in propaganda for war, irrespective of their nationality, can be excluded. This would be a legitimate restriction of cultural rights. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.
Furthermore, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allows for restrictions to freedom of expression if they are provided by law; necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others; or for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals; and if they are proportionate to reach these aims. Therefore, athletes engaging in speech that does not amount to propaganda for war as such but violates the rights of others or public order can also see their freedom of expression and participation restricted.
In addition, under Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, all incitement to, or acts of, racial discrimination must be eradicated.
Again, as mentioned above, the least restrictive measures must be adopted.
The UN Special Rapporteur is of the view that implementing the provisions above effectively can go a long way in addressing the concerns that have been behind the blanket ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes. Combined with the banning of the Russian Federation and Belarus and the active support to Ukrainian athletes, this set of measures would give the right message and ensure that human rights prevail over aggression and illegality.
A distinction should be kept between freedom of opinion and freedom of expression. While the latter can be subject to restrictions, the former one is an absolute right and cannot be subject to any exception or restriction. In the case of sports, it means that no athlete should be excluded based on their opinion about the war, but only with respect to the expression of such opinion. Therefore, any questions by sporting associations about the athletes’ support of the war would cross that line.
The Special Rapporteur understands the emotional distress caused by the aggression against Ukraine, as well as by the idea that Ukrainian athletes could compete against Russian and Belarusian athletes if those are allowed to compete.
International human rights law authorizes restrictions to most human rights, including the right to participate in cultural life through sports, for security reasons as well as to protect the rights of others. The same standards always apply. Restrictions must be determined by law, be necessary and proportionate to pursue a legitimate aim. As specified above, the least restrictive measures must be adopted first.
Many athletes around the world come from conflict areas and may encounter each other during sports competitions. International sports federations are used to adopting protective and mitigating measures in such circumstances. There are already many experiences of tensions, conflicts and natural disasters that the world of sports has faced, from which measures to address the current situation could be taken and adapted.
In her discussions with the IOC, the Special Rapporteur proposed that if all mitigating measures fail and decision is taken to ban individual athletes, the following criteria apply:
The Special Rapporteur notes that, in its Recommendation of 28 March 2023, the IOC recommended that athletes who actively support the war cannot compete. Athletes who are contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military or national security agencies are considered to support the war and therefore cannot compete.
The Special Rapporteur is of the view that limiting the athletes who will be excluded to those who are career military is a step in the right direction. It corresponds to her view that forced conscription alone, for example, would not be sufficient to deprive an athlete of the possibility to compete. Funding by the State also should not be equated with support for the war, in the same way that other athletes from other States are not presumed to support their governments’ decisions because of their funding.
The Special Rapporteur also stresses that, as the situation unfolds and Russian and Belarusian athletes are reintegrated in sports competitions as neutral athletes, the IOC may adopt a series of escalating measures in case this is necessary. It is also the responsibility of the IOC to lift restrictive measures when possible, particularly regarding teams of athletes.
No. In their September 2022 letter, the Special Rapporteurs understood the relocation or cancellation of events planned in the Russian Federation and Belarus, as well as the recommendation not to display the Russian or Belarusian national flags and not to play the
Russian or Belarusian anthems in international sports events, as sanctions that can be considered as legitimate, as they directly target these States or their official representations.
The distinction between States and individuals is of paramount importance. Human rights were established and adopted by all nations to protect individuals and groups against the abuse of power from States and against the tyranny of majorities. Punishing individuals solely based on their nationality for the heinous acts of leaders over which they have no control, would undermine this distinction. But banning States from sports events may be a legitimate measure.
Also, measures actively supporting Ukrainian athletes are welcomed by the Special Rapporteur as positive measures, and allowed in international law to ensure substantive equality.
In view of the discussion on human rights issues above, States that envisage a boycott of international sports competitions may need to reflect on how such a boycott would be compatible with their human rights obligations. Will such a restriction of the rights of their own athletes be a proportionate response to the participation of some Russian athletes who would fulfil the conditions of neutrality that have been set, even when the aggressor States are excluded? Is this the least restrictive measure these States can think of in order to declare their disagreement with the illegal war in Ukraine or/and the violation of the Olympic truce by the Russian Federation?
The Special Rapporteur urges all States to take part in international sports competitions and uphold the principles of non-discrimination and universality of human rights, principles at the core of our common co-existence as humanity.
Since the beginning of the invasion, the Special Rapporteur has made several public statements regarding the effects of the war on cultural heritage in Ukraine and the cultural rights of individuals living in or having been forced out of Ukraine because of the war. She has criticised the Russian Federation for violating the right to self-determination and cultural rights of Ukrainians. She has also criticised the intentional destruction of cultural heritage and has urged cultural rights to be upheld.Note In this respect, she commends the active and effective support that is given to Ukrainian athletes and the IOC recommendation for such support to continue. Such measures contribute to substantive equality, as upheld by international human rights law.